September 12, 2005

New Orleans Hospitals Need Patients, Money

BATON ROUGE -- New Orleans area hospitals, which struggled to operate just after Hurricane Katrina with little power and less security, now have a different problem, the government says -- they need patients to come back so they can stay in business.

But to hear it from the hospitals, the problem is the lack of money to pay doctors and nurses.

Just five hospitals in New Orleans and surrounding areas are fully operational and staffed, the U.S. Public Health Service said, with around 500 beds to take patients needing all manner of treatment.

But with the city all but emptied by a mandatory evacuation order, those beds are mostly empty.

"One of the concerns is if we don't bring back patients to support their activities, they may not be able to continue those activities," Adm. Craig Vanderwagen, the assistant surgeon general, said at a weekend briefing.

The situation is so bad, Vanderwagen said, the Public Health Service is looking at ways it can find healthcare workers displaced by the storm and bring them back to the city to ensure the hospitals can remain up and running.

But the chief executives of two of the five hospitals told Reuters on Monday that what they most need is financial assistance after an extended period with no revenue -- and if they do not get it within the next two to four weeks they will not be able to keep the doctors they need.

"The physicians we have with private practices have no revenue coming in," said Mark Peters, CEO of East Jefferson General Hospital, himself a physician. "I need both the money to sustain the hospital and money to support medical staff."


The cost of Katrina to hospitals has been steep. On the order of 7 percent of Tenet Healthcare's patient capacity was affected by the hurricane, analysts have said, and nearly that many for Universal Health Services Inc. Authorities have seized two of Tenet's hospitals in Jefferson Parish for use as dormitories, although the company is making plans to return them to normal operation as soon as possible.

One of the five reopened hospitals, NorthShore Regional Medical Center in Slidell, is a Tenet facility. Michael O'Bryan, CEO of NorthShore and also a doctor, said his hospital is back on a full schedule, including elective surgery.

Tenet kept the hospital open throughout the hurricane and its aftermath, using what a spokesman called a "private supply chain" to stock it. But even so, O'Bryan said his facility still needs financial help.

"We're not really seeing a whole lot of help outside of (the company supplies)," O'Bryan said. "I think our medical staff has very legitimate concerns about the viability of their practices."

Qualified medical personnel are fleeing New Orleans and setting up shop elsewhere -- The Advocate of Baton Rouge, the local newspaper, is full of advertisements from doctors who have left New Orleans and set up shop here.

With doctors go jobs for nurses, and nursing technicians, physical therapists and the other professionals who make up the medical complex. If the hospitals in the hardest-hit areas close, -- facilities like East Jefferson, West Jefferson and Ochsner -- some worry the shattered New Orleans economy may never recover.

"They are no doubt the three largest employers left in Jefferson Parish," East Jefferson's Peters said.